The dancers were ready, the ballroom lights were dimmed, the clarinetist raised his horn and wailed his way into the eternal strains of "Blue Flame," the band's famous theme. It was deja vu all over again, except for one thing: The clarinetist wasn't Woody Herman.
The scene was the Marriott Hotel in Irvine, where a concert and dance was staged under the direction of Frank Tiberi, who joined Herman's orchestra in 1969 and assumed leadership upon the maestro's death in 1987.
That this was an evening for remembering rather than innovating was hardly a surprise; nor was the fact that the dance floor was often crowded. After all, the first date Herman ever played (in 1936, long before any of the present sidemen were born) was at a Brooklyn dance hall.
Tiberi learned well during his years with Herman. He has even developed a clarinet personality reminiscent of Woody's own thin, reedy sound, although most of the time he plays tenor as one of the four sax players who, with remarkable fidelity, brought back the special pleasure of Ralph Burns' "Early Autumn."
Tiberi also functions as an affable frontman whose comments help make these vintage sounds accessible to those for whom "Woodchopper's Ball" and "Apple Honey" are perhaps only vaguely familiar.
Like every Herman Herd, this is essentially a young ensemble, one that stays together on a year-round basis despite a fair amount of personnel shifting. This week, because of transportation costs, there are two local ringers, Frank Strazzeri on piano and the drummer Paul Kreibach.
Among the regulars, a seven-man brass team attacked the charts crisply and with warm conviction. Outstanding among the soloists was, coincidentally, a native son of Irvine, Ron Stout, whose dark, mellow sound enables him to make the trumpet seem like a fluegelhorn. Next to him in the horn section was Kye Palmer, who distinguished himself in an arrangement of "Body and Soul" that managed, with the help of Tiberi's arrangement, to give CPR to the 60-year-old ballad.
There were a few unfamiliar charts: "Just in Time" arranged by ex-Basie drummer Dennis Mackrel, and Tiberi's reworking of an old Neal Hefti piece, "Repetition," during which his tenor solo assumed the role originally taken by Charlie Parker.
In the sax section, the three tenor players traded solos with spirit on "Four Brothers" and Mike Brignola's brisk baritone achieve a commendable mix of rhythmic conviction and melodic creation.
Clearly this is not a band that is about to make history; it is rather the sign of a welcome continuum in the story of an orchestra that made its unique impact over a span of a half century. Tiberi deserves kudos for the honesty for which he is carrying forward the lingering blue flame.